Business

Will eurozone banks be rescued twice?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on banking stress tests

Stephanie Flanders and I have written four short essays on the eurozone's financial and economic woes for Radio 4's PM. Here's the second of mine.

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There's a great deal of talk about whether eurozone taxpayers will have to bail out their banks, when we have the results on 23 July of tests by regulators to assess their respective weaknesses.

But this is to ignore that only a few weeks ago there was an initial billion dollar bailout of European banks.

You may have missed it, because it wasn't called a bank rescue programme.

It was a financial support package for Greece worth 110bn euros - and 750bn euros of credit for other eurozone governments that may face difficulty keeping up the payments on their debts.

On the face of it therefore this was aid for eurozone states.

But in practice it was succour for German banks, Spanish banks, French banks and so on, because it is those banks that lent hundreds of billions of euros to the likes of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland - and if those countries were unable to keep up the payments on their so-called sovereign debts, well the immediate pain would be felt by banks which had lent to them.

What is troubling, however, is that the creditors of Europe's big banks fear that the billion dollar rescue package wasn't enough - that some eurozone banks face substantial losses and that they have too little capital to absorb those losses.

It is not just that these banks are perceived to have lent too much to governments - like that of Greece - which have been living beyond their means.

They've also provided too much finance to property developers and home-owners in markets - such as those in Spain and Ireland - that have gone from boom to bust.

And there's a final cause for concern among those who provide vital credit to banks. What they see in the eurozone are arrogant lenders which characterised the banking crisis of 2008 as primarily the fault of American and British banks - and which therefore did not follow the lead of American and British banks in strengthening themselves by raising vast amounts of new capital.

The statistics that are available would tend to support these fears about the relative weakness of the eurozone's financial sector.

That said finance ministers and government heads insist that the anxieties are exaggerated.

They've asked regulators to examine 91 European banks and adjudicate on whether they have sufficient capital resources to insulate them from a possible return to recession and squalls in markets.

These so-called stress tests on banks must surely be a jolly good idea - if, that is, they reassure banks' creditors that the risk of lethal losses materialising in eurozone banks is minimal.

Except for one thing.

There is a widespread view that the simulated stresses imposed on the banks are too feeble - they're the equivalent of seeing whether an aeroplane is airworthy by flying it only in choppy weather, not a tornado.

If the eurozone's banks pass their stress tests only because the tests are unrealistically easy, then those banks will remain acutely vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of confidence and sentiment among those who lend to them.

Or to put it another way, stress tests that lack credibility could be the mother and father of a new banking crisis, with the fault-line running from Madrid, to Paris to Berlin - rather than - as happened last time - from New York to London.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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